‘A bastard is a bastard no matter what,’ says the man who gives me directions to Peckham Library. It is about three o’clock in the afternoon, on a steel-grey day two weeks after the death of Damilola Taylor. The centre of Peckham is thronged with police officers, all wearing high-visibility luminous yellow vests, and with equipment strapped around their waists on webbing belts, inflating the clothing around their upper bodies.

I ask again for directions – this time to the scene of Damilola Taylor’s death – at a police van which is parked on the Library forecourt, its windows plastered with appeals for information. Inside, three or four young policemen are sitting looking bored, fiddling with their handcuffs and CS gas canisters. The one sitting opposite the door points me on my way and suggests that if I need further help I should ask one of the coppers lining the route between the Library and the now infamous stairwell where Damilola Taylor bled to death.

The centre of Peckham is filling fast with children coming home from school, shouting and screaming and most of all laughing. They are predominantly black but there are also a fair number of South Asians, Chinese and whites.

I walk out of the centre along Peckham High Street, a road entirely composed of garish fast-food shops and cheap chainstores set beneath a decaying mix of architectural styles from Victorian through 1930s and 1950s. Every few yards, large yellow placards call for information on Damilola Taylor’s murder. Police walk in pairs along the street.

Further on there are no longer any schoolchildren waiting at bus stops, and the shops grow shabbier. Here on the corner of Peckham Road and Southampton Way is Oliver Goldsmith School, which Damilola Taylor attended. Another group of policemen stands outside it. Behind the railings which line one side of the building are laid out the inevitable floral tributes to the boy – a line of cellophane bouquets stretching for twenty feet. There are perhaps thirty bunches of flowers, an indication that for all the media coverage, the murder has not found its way wholly into the big sentimental heart of the British Public. It is clear that Damilola Taylor is no Princess Diana or Sarah Payne.

I stop to read some of the messages with the flowers. Nearly all seem to be from people who live in and around Peckham: church groups and individuals keen to stress their ties with the place (‘I’ve lived here for thirty years,’ one of them reads, ‘but this is one of the saddest days of my life’). Several of the messages convey mild embarrassment and puzzlement at what has happened and, in the context of the media hyperbole, are the more poignant for that.

I keep going up Southampton Way and call in at a chip-shop to ask for further directions. There are no policemen around now and the yellow signs by which I have been plotting my course have also disappeared. The chip-shop owner, a white man in his thirties, is unshaven, with yellow eyeballs and he smells of drink. Before I have a chance to speak he asks me which one I’m from – ITN or BBC? I explain who I am and he begins to talk to me, prefacing each remark with: ‘I’m not racist but . . .’ He says he’d like to put his point of view. Several newsmen have wanted him to say that what is needed is more police on the streets, but he doesn’t think this will stop bullying; and when I ask him about that, he says it’s the Jamaican boys wanting to copy the New York gangs. They pick on the Africans – and the Africans, well they’re not violent but they’re all benefit fraudsters. I ask him about his own family. ‘Oh them,’ he says. ‘My boys live in Kent. Wouldn’t last five minutes here.’ He races back behind the counter to serve a customer. I thank him and as I leave he calls: ‘I’ve been mugged four times and stabbed once – but that’s in 19 years here.’ When I turn down Diamond Street, the landscape changes. The old smog-blackened buildings are gone and so are the laughing children and the shoppers. This is the beginning of the North Peckham Estate. From its foothills of modern maisonettes and bungalows, the estate rises to a series of peaks in the centre consisting of 1960s concrete blocks five storeys high.

On my way to Peckham, I’d gone past an estate near Elephant and Castle. I watched as the seemingly endless side of one huge block of flats unravelled, an enormous grey slab of concrete with interminable walkways and darkened recesses – Middle England’s nightmare of social housing.

Here, there are no monolithic buildings, the atmosphere is not one of oppressive slum-style poverty. But there’s an atmosphere of aridity. Walking around I see half-demolished blocks in the distance and glimpse desolate spaces of broken concrete between buildings. There are plans of the estate fastened to the walls of a few of the blocks of flats. These are indecipherable, a collection of abstract shapes which bear no relation to geographical reality. I take several wrong turnings and arrive in a courtyard between blocks. I ask a group of boys playing football whether they can show me where the murder took place. Their spokesman is courteous and takes time to point out where I can find Hordle Promenade. When I ask him to clarify his directions he does so and then goes back to his game.

It is now just before four o’clock. I stop and speak briefly to several people, mostly parents with young children in pushchairs. I ask them whether they know where the incident occurred. None of them does, or is willing to tell me. I see a cameraman and a reporter pointing their camera through a gap at the side of St Luke’s Church, which stands between two streets, a fish out of water. I walk along the alleyway. A group of official-looking men are standing outside a doorway. Is this the stairwell where Damilola Taylor died? They do not speak either to each other or to me. There is nothing to see and the whole place seems dead under a dark sky. Suddenly, they get into a car and drive off.

A group of teenagers saunter past wearing puffa jackets and woolly hats. When they see me they murmur among themselves. The cameraman and reporter look on. Two of the youths split from the group and walk close behind me. I speed up, cross the road, head towards the entrance to the estate and they follow me. In seconds I have reached the estate boundary, and like fighter jets which have been tracking an intruder in their airspace, they bank away, back into the estate.

It only takes one short visit to dispel the myth about estate living that the Mail and the Express would have us swallow: that of screaming hordes on every corner, the Jets and the Sharks ready to rumble at the flick of a switchblade. This is not the reality. The reality, it seems, is an eternity of slow, sad days punctuated by opportunist acts of criminality. Once I feel safe I turn and look back at the isolated figures: people carrying shopping, mothers with schoolchildren hurrying to get to their houses before darkness falls.

On Monday, 27 November, in this estate, at some time between a quarter and ten to five, Damilola Taylor was wounded in the left leg and an artery was severed. He staggered a hundred yards before collapsing in a stairwell on Hordle Promenade. The police cannot account for the last 24 minutes of his life. We can be sure of the following facts and not much else. At 3.30 he left school and went to the library. He left his computer club there at 4.25 and began the walk home. At 4.49 he was found by a maintenance worker who raised the alarm.

What is still in question is whether knives or broken bottles were used to attack him (several of each have been found nearby) and who was with him (there have been various reports of children seen struggling with each other, but nothing conclusive). As for Damilola Taylor’s background, we know that he arrived from Nigeria four months ago and was living with his mother and siblings in a flat on the estate. His studiousness, the fact that he was from a ‘respectable’ family and that he was coming home from computer club in accordance with his mother’s instructions all combine to imbue the young boy with some sense of public worth over and above what would usually be accorded a victim of violence on this estate.

At the time I write, no more is really known about the death of Damilola Taylor, but one of the main planks on which the investigation rests is CCTV footage of the child descending in a lift from the computer club, leaving Peckham Library and jumping on paving stones outside the fitness centre a few metres away. He is conspicuous in a silver puffa jacket. The footage gives the police hard evidence of some of Damilola Taylor’s movements before his death; it has also given columnists the opportunity to show off their mastery of Dickensian pathos. Journalists have been reduced to sentimental gush in the face of the indistinct images of Damilola Taylor as he headed for home. There has been a danger, as in so many recent high-profile murder cases, of journalists losing sight of the particularity of the actual crime in their rush to create a symbol of social decline. Perhaps the most valuable lesson to be learned from the CCTV footage is that this intrusive surveillance, as in the Bulger case, provided haunting images for feature writers but failed to stop a young boy from losing his life.

Parallels with the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence will also be made. The Metropolitan Police has learnt from its PR disasters in that case and has proudly announced that the hunt for Damilola Taylor’s killers is the biggest since Jill Dando’s murder. As far as is possible, the Met has attempted to head off criticism of its handling of this case on race grounds. One of the curious aspects of the Lawrence investigation and the subsequent Macpherson Report was the criticism of detectives who kept an open mind regarding the motives behind Lawrence’s murder. For at least a decade before Lawrence, it had been thought that, in order to avoid miscarriages of justice, conclusions should not be jumped to. Look at the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, went the argument: suddenly a new orthodoxy stated that if race was a possible factor, other lines of enquiry were to be given less emphasis.

Damilola Taylor’s murder shows again how easily liberal causes can give rise to illiberal effects, with the Met’s new-found sensitivity to the very notion of race appearing to close off important lines of inquiry. Despite there being anecdotal evidence of tensions between the Afro-Caribbean and African communities on the estate, almost immediately the police indicated that they did not regard the killing as racist. Their position was conveniently reinforced by Mrs Taylor issuing a statement to the same effect. Instead, we have heard that Damilola Taylor was bullied at school, and that this is linked to his murder. The bullying appears to have amounted to the child being called ‘gay’. It is debatable whether in the context of the North Peckham Estate this is the most devastating insult ever levelled at a young boy and whether it is quite the cast-iron evidence of motive that its prominence in the press would suggest.

With Damilola Taylor’s murder, we have reached the peculiar position where a headmaster is put in the frame as a vicarious defendant and has to justify his school’s stance on bullying. Meanwhile, just outside his gates, the whole social infrastructure appears to be crumbling through lack of investment and interest on the part of anyone who can effect a change.

The all-consuming focus on individuals, the determination on the part of the media to make this murder into a state-of-the-nation fatality, have led to rampant emotional inflation and the consequent distortion by politicians of the relative importance of events. Nothing has been established, the investigation is in its infancy and yet legislative measures are already being introduced on the back of Damilola Taylor’s death.

Before any conclusions have been reached, the sensitivity of politicians to the power of the media has resulted in the Nigerian President passing judgment on the incident and our own Home Secretary leading a full frontal attack on yob culture. It is not to underestimate the pain and grief of individuals to ask whether a lack of proportion has been shown by our representatives in Parliament. Should we alter laws on a wave of public emotion? Should the Government use a half-completed murder enquiry as justification for the implementation of repressive legislation?

The proximity of Damilola Taylor’s death to the Queen’s Speech has made it possible for overtly populist measures to be put forward without any political challenge. Last October the Government brought into force the Human Rights Act, as they had promised in their pre-election publication Bringing Rights Home. They now intend to bring teenagers home forcibly by introducing a Criminal Justice and Police Bill which includes plans to impose fixed penalties for disorderly behaviour in public places and to raise the upper age limit for curfew to 15. A curfew has in fact been in force in relation to the under-tens since the passing of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. It has yet to be implemented anywhere in Britain as a way of clearing the streets of warring toddlers, but now the Government has decided to make curfew a far less laughable instrument of social control. Presumably, the new piece of legislation will run very much along the same lines as its older partner in crime, so it is worth looking at the relevant sections of the 1998 Act and the guidance notes which accompany it.

Sections 14-15 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 are designed to deal with the problem of unsupervised children under the age of ten wandering the streets late at night. The procedure for the curfew is essentially that individual local authorities may design a curfew scheme which must then be approved by the Home Office. The scheme must last for a maximum of 90 days and must begin no earlier than 9 p.m. and end no later than 6 a.m. The police have the power to escort any child found in breach of a curfew to his or her home. Following this, the local authority is required to visit the family within 48 hours to assess the need for ‘intervention’.

These are the bare repressive bones of the Act, which are fleshed out by vague guidelines permitting great scope for abuse and manipulation on the part of an embattled police force which might want to exert its power and show its dominance in a given area. According to these guidance notes, the Government is worried that children under ten may become involved in ‘anti-social or potentially criminal behaviour’. Who defines what is anti-social? How does one recognise potentially criminal behaviour? Walking along a street is presumably ‘potentially criminal’ but no definitions are given, leaving the door open for truly extreme measures of social control. The guidelines assure us that ‘dealing with such problems cannot fall to any one group or organisation and the involvement of the whole community is essential in addressing and dealing with such situations.’ By this is meant that the police (who are apparently ‘well used to dealing sensitively with young children’) will be able to pick a child off the streets where a ‘police officer has reasonable cause to believe that the child is in breach of a curfew notice’. The police can take such steps ‘as are reasonable in all the circumstances’ to enable them to exercise their powers. The police can decide not to return a child home but to take it to a police station or ‘other accommodation’. The test here is whether the child is likely to suffer significant harm in the opinion of the police officer. In the next paragraph the guidance notes helpfully tell us that ‘it is difficult to be precise about what might be considered to constitute significant harm,’ but give us the nonsensical ‘physical abuse by implication’ as an example.

Reading the notes it is difficult to believe that the whole thing was not drafted by the Child-Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on behalf of General Jaruzelski at the height of martial law in Poland. Unfortunately, as they say, this is for real. These measures, which blatantly remove freedoms from the poor and underprivileged, are shocking. Rather than being tough on crime the Government might do well to consider the reasons for criminal behaviour in areas of low economic activity. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, one in four people in the United Kingdom was living in poverty in 1998/99 compared with one in ten in 1979. Children are more likely than any other group to be below the poverty line – more than one in three in 1998/99 compared with one in ten in 1979. Gordon Brown has greatly increased income support to unemployed families with children but Jack Straw’s curfew can only damage the cause of ‘social inclusion’.

The Government appears to be finding it increasingly difficult as it approaches an election to contain the iron fist attractive to Middle England in the socialist glove its traditional support would have it wear. New Labour’s call for more individual responsibility is a close echo of the Conservative Government’s exhortation to forgive less and condemn more, and it is those who are seen as not counting, who live on estates, who do not drive the economy, who are made to take responsibility. They are the ones on the receiving end of legislation such as the local curfew and who are increasingly being blamed for our inability to function as a cohesive society. It is certainly true, however, that it is all too easy to assert that regeneration is preferable to repression. The Government’s readiness to offend the sensibilities of left-wing Britain has some virtues: what use would it be to people on estates like North Peckham if their rights were entirely free from constraint but they had to barricade themselves in their homes before giving thanks for these civil liberties? The problem is to strike a balance between the recognition that crime on estates of this kind is a serious problem and treating their residents as a mass of downtrodden proles who are entirely the victims of circumstance.

On the walk back into Peckham, I call in again at the chip-shop. The owner is once more at the front of the shop looking out of the window. I ask him what he thinks of curfews for children and he laughs sardonically, watching me from the corner of his eye. ‘I think that they’re all cunts,’ he says, and carries on telling me how he was mugged last Friday. ‘A bastard is a bastard.’ ‘They’re all cunts.’ The nature of New Labour’s developing criminal and social justice policy could not be put more succinctly, I think to myself. Back in the centre, I watch a group of schoolchildren wrestling with each other in front of the Library and then I catch the bus home.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences